In today’s social media world, there is still nothing that beats a good old-fashioned hand shake.

Or a hug.

Al Watts at the National At-Home Dad Network's information booth, during the Dad 2.0 Summit.

NAHDN President Al Watts at the National At-Home Dad Network’s information booth, during the Dad 2.0 Summit.

As a stay-at-home dad for the last 10 years, I have felt isolated at times. Even in a house full of kids, it can be very lonely as an at-home parent. No matter how hard I try to explain it, I can’t get my kids interested in the fiscal cliff or why I didn’t like it when that person at the hardware store called me “Mr. Mom.” Sometimes I need a little adult interaction. Sometimes I need a lot.

Most of the time, that can only happen online between fights and meals (which often happen at the same time). I am grateful to have such a great group of friends to share my triumphs and failures with online.

But that is not enough for me. It really isn’t enough for anybody. We need direct contact with our friends. We need to see the look in their eyes, feel the warmth of their laughter, hear the accent in their voice (Oren, dude, you sound so different in person!)

This is what a conference like the Dad 2.0 Summit, which was held Jan. 31 – Feb. 2 in Houston, TX, offered dads like me.

It offered a chance to connect in person with dad bloggers I have been friends with online for years who I have read and laughed and cried with. It also offered a unique opportunity to connect with companies who are finally starting to realize that dads matter in the marketplace. No matter how much you connect online, though, nothing cements a relationship better than buying a friend a free beer.

I particularly enjoyed experiencing the vulnerability of all the dads and company reps I met, to take a page from Brene Brown’s keynote presentation on Saturday. The dads shared their experiences as fathers in very open and raw ways. The company reps honestly listened to my opinions about how they can reach fathers better. Whether during one of the extravagant dinners that were included in my registration fee or during one of the many readings of dad bloggers throughout the conference or the honesty of company reps during the brand forum, I experienced this vulnerability and felt liberated to express my own.

A conference like this is truly how you move society forward. You find a group of like-minded people, share your true, heart-felt sentiments in a safe environment and then become empowered to confidently express those feelings outside of the safety of your closest friends. When you bring in advertisers who often are responsible for shaping the image of fathers, you have a chance to change how they view fathers and portray them in their ads.

One of the more interesting of such experiences happened during the break-out session in which I was invited to be a panelist. It was a session called “Can Parenting Ever Be Truly Gender-Neutral?” One of the guys attending asked us how we felt about one of the sponsors bringing some of the New Orleans Saints Cheerleaders to the conference. He wanted to know if we felt this was stereotyping men. It just so happened that one of the representatives of that sponsor was attending the session too. She quickly stood up and apologized for bringing in the cheerleaders and promised to take the criticism as a learning experience.

The companies who came and sponsored Dad 2.0 are just now starting to understand fatherhood of the 21st century. Like the above sponsor, they are learning that dads do not like to be presumed to be objectifiers of women or that they all plan to watch the Super Bowl or that they don’t know how to clean up juice spilled on the counter. Dads are, increasingly, competent caregivers who passionately love their families and increasingly are the primary purchaser of consumer goods (in as many as 40% of households according to some surveys).

Bringing dads together is powerful. Sharing that stage with companies who are trying to reach us for the first time with products like cheese, tomato sauce, juice drinks and mini vans is stratospheric.

The Dad 2.0 Summit is changing the world. It is changing the way society views fatherhood and, I believe, making it possible for all of us elevate our expectations.